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Finding the Time for Creative Writing

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Time and again, creative writing students cite the difficulty inherent in carving out times for practice and development as one of the chief reasons for their frustration with their progress. It’s such a common problem for those working on developing their craft to a professional level that Writers’ Digest has multiple articles (1, 2) on the topic. No matter what the take on the subject, writers often get the same advice: make sure you set aside time, make sure you practice every day, make sure you read other writers whose work you admire, to understand what it is that you are reaching for. And, often, the advice comes with the added note that it takes a lot of textual exposure and practice before you begin to lock in to the style and structure that you need to propel yourself to the next level.

It’s just a pity things don’t always work that way.

The Myth of Practice Time

Most of the advice about making time to write is built around the comparison between writing and athletic or musical talents, and that is exactly why the advice is trouble. In a lot of ways, writing is like those other skill sets–it is technique based, it requires both muscle memory and active critical thinking in a real-time state, and the performance of it can be broken down and discussed in ways that help educate the practitioner so that they make better choices at other times. Where writing is different from those other skills is in the cost and the balance of life activities to practice effort.

By and large, musicians and athletes do not live in environments that require them to use their talents day in and day out in the service of goals other than the development of that talent. An athlete might also work a labor-oriented job that is physically taxing, but it tends not to work the exact same muscles and techniques that they need when they step into practice later, and if it does, it does not work them with the intensity of exercise. The same goes for musicians when it comes to developing their timing and dexterity.

Creative writers, on the other hand, live in a world where they are immersed in the use of their skills at every turn. From workplace communication to training and instruction to scheduling, email, social media, and keeping tabs on current events in the world, reading and writing are immersive cultural activities that can not be separated from life, and if a writer is to capture the essence of life, they can not be.

Realistically, this means that carving out a dedicated practice time can leave writers feeling frustrated and spent, because they may have the goal of reaching 350 words in a short session and calling it a day, just to get the practice, only to find themselves in a situation where their kids, work, family, and household management has put them in the position of writing 2000 or even 5000 words in a day, so that last 350 is just not there.

Making Practice in Real Time

The solution is skills transference. The secret to practicing your creative writing is finding the opportunity to practice it as an aspect of life, to make those tropes, descriptions, and structures into guideposts that not only help increase the effectiveness of communication in those other genres, but that also allow the writer to acknowledge and to nurture those skills as the opportunities for practice present themselves. By living in an ever-engaged state where literary practices more generally become specific opportunities to hone an audience-appropriate set of artistic traits, creative writers not only carve out room for craft development, they move themselves toward having a more robust creative stamina that is capable of engaging in a higher workload as it develops.

Dithyrambs Reading – Kalamazoo, MI (EDIT)

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Kalamazoo Public Library, street-sideWhere and When:

Time: 7 pm, Thursday April 28

Place: Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, MI

The dithyrambs event has been postponed until fall due to scheduling conflicts. Check back for more information as it becomes available!

Event Description:

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon University Press published my Dithyrambs. In my newest collection, Swastika into Lotus (Carnegie Mellon, Feb. 2016) there are two newer choral lyrics. I’ve long wished to organize a relatively large, public presentation of my dithyrambs, and am taking the publication of this new (and probably my final) collection of poems as the occasion for acting upon my seventeen-year wish.

I envision a performance exactly like any other choral performance. The “singers” will cluster, dressed alike or wearing choral robes, and holding choral “books.” For each dithyramb, two people will step out of the choir to speak the two leads. In most cases, the leads will be one male and one female, though there are two or three exceptions. Rather than being organized into voice types (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone), the choir will be organized into “male” and “female,” and transgendered folks are of course included in this binary.

Each dithyramb tells a story; that is, each has a narrative arc, a sense of setting, characterization.

All that’s required is a voice strong enough to be heard in a large room, and the ability to declaim pentameter lines. All English-department students, graduate and undergraduate, are invited to participate, as are folks from the community. Back in the late 90s, when Dithyrambs was published, I gave quite a few performances at colleges and universities. I’d find three volunteers, a male and two females. I would perform the male chorus leader part, the male volunteer would read the male chorus part, and the female volunteers would read the female chorus and female chorus leader parts. We’d practice for an hour or so, and then perform. I have to say that those impromptu performances were well received and a load of fun. After we’ve formed our troupe, we’ll practice two or three times.

Richard Katrovas

What’s a dithyramb?

From the introduction to Dithyrambs (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1998):

Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, I am enchanted by the choral ejaculations of Attic tragedy, and am fascinated by the question of how tragic drama, the likes of which developed nowhere elseon earth, issued from a particular moment in ancient history,the product of satyr plays, dithyrambs, and epics. As far as I can tell, what fragments of dithyrambs we have are not necessarily representative of those immediate precursors of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and I imagine that one must look directly into Aeschylian drama to see the vestiges of dithyrambs in their latest development, a period when they were original compositions and not simply received, folkish forms. My dithyrambs are highly stylized blank verse monologues framed by choral outbursts. In all of these poems, several dialectics are at play, not the least of which is a simultaneous yearning for, and parody of, a “high” lyric style.

—RK

Read What You Write

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This post title might seem obvious, but its importance is multi-layered, and it affects every level of a creative writer’s performance. It’s not enough just to read the same genre you write in or to read people whose style or standpoint might share features with yours. Part of participating in the craft in a real and relevant way means reading what you write in terms of genre awareness, but part of it also means learning to be the audience, even when it’s your work.

Reflecting and Responding

Whether you like it or not, readers will associate your work with other work that shares its features. That means that when you write a literary novel that features, say, an autistic protagonist disclosing a disability in the workplace, you will find that readers will associate your book with other books along a variety of axes, including:

  • Books on/about autism
  • Books by autistics, whether or not they’re about autism
  • Books about disability in the workplace
  • Books about disabled people living their lives
  • Books about relationships between disabled people
  • Literary novels about contemporary issues
  • Realistic fiction about the present-day

If you’re writing to reach only one of those audiences, then your work might find resonance with a portion of that audience, but it might also find that it is received less well by some of the other audiences that might have found something of themselves in it. Even if you don’t necessarily want to write like the other writers in those other genre intersections, it’s important to know what you will be compared to, as well as what the dominant attitudes and threads of that conversation happen to be and how they are likely to shape the reception of your own work. If you’re not reading around yourself, though, you miss those opportunities to enrich and expand the reach of your own project.

 

Top Reasons to Study Abroad if You’re a Creative Writer

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Whether you are planning on a full semester abroad or a shorter-term, more concentrated program, there are a number of reasons why this is a great choice. Top study abroad sites that focus on full-semester programs tend to focus on two major ways of talking about those reasons: Benefits for your education, and reasons given by study abroad program alumnae. What is less common is the focus on the academic challenges and experiential expansion that cultural immersion can bring to students taking career paths based in scholarly and artistic pursuits.

Top Reasons Artists and Writers Study Abroad

  1. Starting again in a new country with different communication expectations and customs is a transformative experience that reshapes the ways that you look at interaction with other people and with your environment.
  2. If you’re looking to move abroad as a possible academic or career goal, a short educational program is a great way to discover what you need to know about your possible choices.
  3. Opportunities to study in close quarters with mentor-teachers whose influence and knowledge about the local area will add new insight to the ways potential audiences might interact with your work.
  4. Connections made through study abroad programs help expand your social network, allowing you to discover more opportunities to place your work and to learn more about your artistic development by promoting the work of others.
  5. You have the chance to reassess your existing relationships as you discover who reaches out across international boundaries to keep in touch, what kinds of ways distance shapes your interaction with people at home, and what it shows you about your own process.

Immersion in Prague

Students participating in the Prague Summer Program for writers have the opportunity to experience cultural immersion in “the mother of all cities,” experiencing the history and impact of one of central Europe’s most prominent cities for art and literature. From the stories of its origin to the rich tapestry of writers leading up to and flowing from the Velvet Revolution, there are very few places that offer artists and writers the opportunities that you can find in Prague. Check out our Program Info for more details.

Swastika Into Lotus

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Swastika Into Lotus mandala coverRichard’s newest book of poetry, Swastika Into Lotus, is now available through Carnegie Mellon Press. It’s been out for about a month now, and there are some great reviews starting to pop up. Early readers are saying things like:

“Tough, direct, gritty, full of wonder . . . there is nothing meek about Mr. Katrovas. . . . He sings with an authority that is guided by compassion, by an unblinking eye for what is beautiful within what is not.”

The New York Times Book Review

If you’re wondering about the scope and content of the material, here’s what the Press has to say:

In Swastika into Lotus, Richard Katrovas, a “punk formalist,” casts a wary eye on poetry, poetry readings, higher education, the UFO cottage industry, organized religion, fine dining, climate change denial, and national right-wing politics. The book’s humor is dark, by turns self-deprecating and fierce, and yet many of the poems are unabashed in their assertions of both filial and romantic love. Heaving traditionally “formal” verse through a looking glass, Katrovas has produced a book that is not for the passive-aggressively “sensitive.”

Poems in the collection have previously appeared in The American Literary Review, Crazyhorse, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, New Orleans on New Orleans, and North American Review. It’s available here on Amazon, or through most other major booksellers.

Planning Ahead: Eating Affordably Abroad

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Depending on your study abroad program, you may find yourself in a situation where you are totally responsible for your own food, lodging, or both while you are in-country. At the Prague Summer Program, we coordinate rooms for students as part of the program, but attendees are connected with information about the area and left to conduct day-to-day business like meals and laundry themselves. Being able to make strong recommendations based on a long relationship to a community is what makes good international study programs capable of connecting students to culture and opportunity, in addition to their subject-area study, and it is something to look for.

In addition to the advice that Program staff can give in-country, we’ve also heard a few different options from past attendees that an stretch your budget further, giving you more resources to put toward sightseeing and exploration.

Top Tips

  1. This is going to seem too simple to be real, but many people lose track of this fact during the hustle and bustle of travel: Eating healthy and budget-conscious food abroad is a lot like doing it at home. You just have to commit to the grocery store and pick out options that can be used for a few meals. In a lot of places, these options are going to look familiar: peanut butter and jelly is everywhere, eggs are a common staple in just about any locale, and when all else fails, there are always fresh fruits and vegetables in whatever local varieties happen to be in season.
  2. Avoid areas that sell leisure as their main attraction. Touristy restaurants might deliver top quality food, but they are not as cost-effective as the options favored by locals. Depending on what you’re in the mood for and what is in the area, it can be fun to explore. Remember, when scouting restaurants in any unfamiliar area, being busy is a good sign.
  3. Last but not least, it’s going to be easier to stick to your guns about your per-day expenses if you make sure that your less expensive options are varied. Buying in bulk for further discount might seem great, but when you are on your seventh scrambled and and pepper meal in a row, you’ll probably break down and overspend for a place that you normally wouldn’t let yourself splurge for.

Keeping these in mind, it is important to plan for those splurges–once you have a plan for your day-to-day needs, you’ll be able to identify the best times and places to really go all out and indulge.

What’s in a Name? (Prague History Lesson)

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Studying abroad is about more than just personal development and building experience. Very often, reasons include a particular investment in understanding a location, culture, or historic relationship. Other times, the program or location offers opportunities that are not as easily accessible through institutions at home. In the case of Prague, many of our students cite both reasons. This is no surprise when one teaches writers, because often historic relationships, culture, and the physical particulars of location are bound together in our work.

What About Prague?

Generally, it s believed that the city gets its name, as many do, from its physical location. The Czech name, Praha, is derived from the Slavic word práh. The meaning is something like “ford,” or in other contexts “river rapids,” and it is generally accepted that this is a reference to the city’s origin at the crossing point for the Vltava river. This means that its original naming was conducted in the same spirit as U.S. cities like Grand Rapids, Cedar Rapids, or Chagrin Falls. It also means that there are other, similarly named locations that derive their identities from the same etymological turn, such as the Praga district in Warsaw, Poland.

Alternative Theories

The word práh also exists in the Czech language, where it means threshold. Alongside the commonly accepted etymology, there exists an explanation that ties this meaning to princess Libuše, the legendary ancestor of the Czech people as a whole, who was said to have ordered the city “to be built where a man hews a threshold of his house.” Other theories tie the name Praha to the term “na prazě,” which refers the the shale upon which the castle and the surrounding city was built.

Wrap-Up

While there may never be a cut-and-dried answer to the origin of Prague’s name, the more familiar English version is easily traced back to French modifications to the original name as it became a common term in that language, and other common names or references to it have also called it “the heart of Europe” and “the mther of cities.” See you there!

When to Stop Workshopping

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Beginning writers are always told about how important peer review, workshopping, and getting feedback is to their development. The emphasis on feedback happens for a reason–writing is a social act, and it is in understanding how it is received that we begin to see the patterns that allow us to gain better control over both the quality and exact implications of our messages. This is true whether you are engaged in creative writing, journalism, or research and practical writing.

What creative types have to deal with that sets us apart is simple: There are no clean templates or style guides for us. We can learn about genre, technique, and even story structure, but the exact shape of our plot has to be structured around the psychological reality of our characters. This magnifies the importance of audience feedback, because mere style is not enough to make sure we are understood. Narrative itself is rarely enough, and rhetoric, while it serves the needs of a story, is insufficient to make it whole.

Workshopping lets us see the balance of these elements, and to hear whether or not they are achieving the desired result. At the same time, though, feedback from an audience with little interest or investment in a particular style, technique, or topic limits the range of productive feedback we can receive. Consider seeking feedback in another form, either through a new workshop or through other kinds of channels, if you’re working with any of the following:

  • A workshop audience that is plainly uninterested in the genre or topic.
  • One whose background readings and/or writing experience makes them ill-suited to understand the techniques you favor.
  • A group of people who have reviewed this same piece in more than one previous incarnation.
  • Readers who do not reflect the target audience for your piece.

Local writing groups, online meeting spaces, and even blogging platforms like Tumblr can provide you with the keys to find your next workshop space, and programs like the Prague Summer Program for Writers exist to bring writers into new communities, where their work can connect with more diverse audiences, allowing them the experience of a wider reading. This, in turn, helps build up your own confidence in your judgment as it informs your base of knowledge about the way your work will be viewed by different kinds of people.

Poetry: Don’t Sweat the Technique

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Many poets feeling their way around free verse find themselves trapped by its relative lack of constraint. That is to say, they find themselves using formal elements that the form lends itself to very well, and even perfecting them, while remaining somewhat dissatisfied with the musicality in the work. The result can often be frustrating, as these kinds of poems are gems in many ways, and often sound fantastic when read aloud while being elegantly pruned constellations of detail on the page.

Establishment and Improvisation

The key to making the musicality pop out of free verse is to establish expectations or ground rules in the opening stanza, and then to embellish and ornament them as you go. This can be by building up linguistic structures that follow familiar rhythmic patterns, such as an iambic flow or a meter that you can fold and manipulate as you go. Once the pattern is constructed, it can be imported into different techniques and rotated to provide opportunities for change. For instance, if you are running an iambic flow and you are looking to move into a new pattern, breaking your last foot of a middle line in the stanza where you make the change can allow you to pivot to the resulting accent pattern in the next paragraph.

Numeric progressions can also be a big help. Working in sets of three or four and passing patterns at points of change is a popular move in many kinds of performance poetry. For example, repeating a rhyme scheme four times before using four of the same accented vowels in a row to gloss over the fact that the rhyme scheme has been dropped, and then landing back into a new rhyme on the other side of the feat. By rotating these techniques in conjunction with each other, a polyrhythmic structure free of entanglement with absolute rules or form can rise out of the relative emptiness of a free structure.

Notation and Cadence

If you are looking to make a free style pop, one way is to commit to a line length that is measured in something other than simple syllables. Since musicality is the main organizing principle in this particular exercise, mine it for more ways to use the language. Constructing lines around length of delivery time, using punctuation consistently to notate measured lengths of pauses, and spacing the poem so that the distance between words reflects their relative lengths are all organizing principles that can replace the standard rhythmic and metric constraints found in traditional poetic styles with a more open-ended approach to structure, one that allows the poet to use the organizing principle itself as a way of establishing their skills to the audience.

Notebook Exercises: Character Sketch

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As you develop your story, whether it’s a short-short or a novel, there are a few basic pieces of prep work you need to do. For shorter works, many writers find themselves making this preparation mental instead of writing out every step, but sometimes it’s helpful to write things out, even if you’re only going to be with a character or setting for a short time. This character sketch exercise can be used for book length projects or flash fiction, it’s just a matter of the length you give yourself and your commitment to detail.

Build a Dossier

To give yourself a good character sketch, you need to lay out some background information first. Set aside some time, and let yourself just get information out in bullet-point. You’ll worry about organizing your creative writing later. To make sure you have a lot to work with, consider all of the following:

  • Family members and their relationship to the character
  • Occupation, primary goal, and/or societal role
  • Past experience and skill set, including education
  • Current major objective or goal
  • Possible secondary/tertiary goals (if needed)
  • Recognizable physical features or characteristics

Once you have a bunch of character information bullet-pointed, you’ll want to move on to organizing it into a narrative. Whether this is the protagonist of your story or not, you will want to get yourself organized around a story starring this character, one that helps you map out the ways that the six items above interact on a day-to-day basis.

Origin Stories and Other Indulgences

There are a few ways you can organize the information, and since this sketch is for you, let yourself explore. If you can build drama and tension into this exercise, great. It will transfer to your main story. If not? OK. This is just for you. Consider how the following scenarios can help you understand this character from the right angle:

  1. How did your character get to be in their current job or role? Why do they owe loyalty to the people they do? Give us the place it started.
  2. Consider the same kind of origin story, but for a code of ethics, honor, or other worldview. Where and how did that begin?
  3. Write a memoir where the character shows us their most powerful family memory.
  4. Become Facebook friends with your character. What kind of private gossip do they share about the other people in your story?

No matter what genre you’re working in, these kinds of formative exercises help to build the world your creative writing takes place in. Even when these extra stories live and die their entire lives in your notebook, the extra information they bring to your judgment in your main projects is irreplaceable.